May 26, 2013
Mostly I know volunteer organisations are established on the basis of responding to a need, whether it’s for kids sport, disaffected youth, family abuse, or for civic and political protest. That is, people in the community recognise a gap or a flaw in services and decide to step up and step in to provide it themselves.
I can understand neediness when it comes to funding and resourcing operations. Even the smallest organisation will be looking to cover costs for stamps and paper, and photocopying minutes of meetings, phone calls and internet services. Maybe membership fees and dipping into our own pockets will cover the deficit, but that may not be sustainable over time. The organisation might grow, get some traction through philanthropic grants and perhaps a government contract, though the $$ are never enough to cover total expenditure.
Recruiting volunteers is not the first step in developing a volunteer programme, but it’s certainly the one that trips many an organisation, as reported in the Managers Matter research (2010). It seems the problem is about posing recruitment messages as needing volunteers.
Twice this week I’ve seen promos for volunteers that are more like begging pleas. This or that organisation needs volunteers – can you help? Need and help go together, relying simply on reader perception of these words and possible recognition of the organisation’s brand or logo. Without indication of volunteer roles and responsibilities and without describing the advantages in volunteering for this organisation I am most likely to offer nothing more than a passing glance to such messages.
Need – Help – and then add Want, to make a triumvirate of words least likely to attract volunteers. British World War I recruitment posters no longer have the pull of earlier times: volunteers wanted is just another empty plea. Empty, because no-one is asking about the skills and experience I could offer, nor describing the potential benefits of volunteering with your organisation. Help wanted is just another banner fluttering in the breeze of volunteer opportunities.
What does work in attracting volunteers, whether it’s through community networks, a website, Facebook or other social media, or via Volunteer Centre brokerage?
For starters you don’t have to use any of the above: you go ask people. Not because you need or want them to help. You ask because they’ve got skills and talents that would be really useful; because the organisation is a fun place to work; because they’ve got a programme that supports and appreciates volunteer work – and a host of other reasons to shoulder-tap and get people interested. There’s a powerful argument posted this week about Asking being the New Telling. We’ve known about direct approaches to volunteers for many years, and we need to grow out of relying on begging messages. Here’s another link promoting the direct ask, and you can’t do better than this compilation of ways to turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet. Or have a look at Susan Ellis’ run-down on the turn-offs in volunteer recruitment.
I wish we could get past the agonising about needing and wanting volunteers to help organisations. There is so much good advice available on practical ways to find and keep volunteers we should not have to keep on repeating the begging messages of neediness.
When I get past the neediness pleas I know that volunteering is much more about belonging in and building healthy communities. And when I find an organisation that offers attractive recruitment promotion I will know there’s a switched-on manager of volunteers who knows how and can do.
It’s long past time to turn on a few more light bulbs.
April 14, 2013
For too long I have been listening to these words, how “they” just do not understand volunteering and management of volunteers. Now I am sitting up to ask the question “What do we mean by getting volunteering – what do we want ‘them’ to get?”
And I’m running into trouble when I go looking for answers.
I could recite the litany of volunteer motivations; describe the history of community organisations and their rise to national and corporate status. I could tell the stories of volunteers, and there are millions to document ‘making the difference’ for individuals and communities. I’m not so keen on citing the record of hours worked and assumed $$ contributions, because that information does not seem to wash further than input/output statistics in the annual accounts – volunteers are just another resource to draw on. And anyway, we have gone down all these roads, many times.
What is it, what is the real deal that would get staff and organisation executives and government departments and corporate bosses to open their eyes to a real Ah-Ha moment about volunteering?
For starters it would help if “they”
Have had personal experience of volunteering and an understanding of the relevance of community in the wider fields of political and social action.
Work in an organisation structure and culture where volunteers are physically located in staff work-spaces, and which integrates the volunteer programme in service delivery plans and processes.
Employee volunteering is another option to open eyes to the richness and diversity of community organisations, and to their needs.
Yet these experiences do not seem to work for everyone in all places. The stories keep recurring about a lack of support for volunteers and their managers, and about organisations not taking volunteering seriously. It’s a low cost investment, nice to have, but not something to be worried about nor included when it comes to planning and strategic development.
Of course what the bosses and bureaucrats should be doing is paying attention to Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.
It is encouraging to note increasing awareness and activism among managers of volunteers and associated groups. We are talking up impact and outcome measurement of volunteer services, advocating for volunteering within our organisations. But following this path is simply trying to prove the worth of volunteering on “their” terms, a linear logic that can be described with numbers on paper.
If only “they” could look the other way to see the true value of volunteering. Here is what I would want “them” to see:
Volunteers complement the organisation’s delivery of services.
Volunteers add value to services, providing extras that are never going to be funded, and which enhance the holistic experience of users/clients.
Volunteers are ambassadors for the organisation. With a good experience volunteers can be the best marketing agent ever. If that experience is not so good they will do the worst possible damage to your reputation in the community, making it difficult to recruit new volunteers, and putting significant limitations on the success of fundraising projects.
Community organisations are said to be driven by values. No matter the mission you will find words like respect, dignity, communication, family-whanau/people-centred, community inclusiveness featuring on the masthead. Values represent beliefs and attitudes we hold dear, and we know them by the way they are exhibited in behaviour. Regardless of the reasons why people volunteer their behaviour generally reflects the ideals of the organisation.
So when we try to measure volunteering according to business plans and key performance indicators and impact measurement we get stuck on things like courtesy and goodwill, like relationships and understanding, like social connections and community development and individual and collective strengths. Volunteering is about people, by people and for people.
The value of volunteering is not less than the organisation’s ability to reach targets and to show a return on investment. Volunteering is a different sort of value. So, for “them” to ‘get volunteering’ requires understanding a different culture.
The beauty of understanding and accepting cultural difference is the new relationship that forms, based on each others’ strengths and a willingness to learn how to work together. That’s when I shall know “they” really get volunteering.
April 1, 2013
What do you reckon? How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does? What is your performance rating? Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale? Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?
There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game. Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat? Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?
When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment. There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding. It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors. Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board? To the tune of the latest marketing programme? Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?
The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures. But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.
Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.
It’s still much the same these days. Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth. Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.
The impact of services like these goes in several directions. Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future. The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements. Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits. There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services. Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved. The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements. That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.
We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society. We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change. Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels. As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business. Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.
But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change. We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.
March 23, 2013
No, this post is not a lecture on Road Safety, nor is it about peripheral vision. I want to talk about how a manager of volunteers needs two lines of sight.
Because it’s all very well to design and develop and run a programme for volunteers in an organisation, and to take to heart the mission of ensuring the best experience for the volunteers – but if you have not looked the other way to see how the volunteer programme integrates with other organisation functions and policies then both volunteers and the organisation can end up being short-changed.
Over the years I’ve listened to the sorrowful song-book presented by managers of volunteers. Here’s a small sample:
- Volunteers are regarded as second-rate workers
- Managers of volunteers don’t rate it as ‘managers’, nor as ‘professionals’
- They are lowly-paid and inadequately resourced
- No support for professional development
- Lip-service recognition of the volunteer programme, and volunteer achievements
- ‘They’ just don’t get volunteering
It does not have to be like that! And it isn’t of course, as the champions and leaders of our profession can demonstrate. There are also Chief Executives who know and understand volunteering and its importance to the organisation, ensuring volunteers get a fair go and respect for their work.
So what can you be doing to get away from the moan-and-groan stuff?
Simple answer: you get strategic.
Help! I don’t know how.
Yes you do! You have thought through what was needed for the programme, developed policies and processes, set everything in place for the recruitment and training of volunteers, and how volunteering would work in the organisation. You connected with your communities, and with the local network of managers of volunteers. Now you can do it all again, in the other direction, developing the connections and the strategies that will show senior management how to embrace volunteering and your management and leadership within the organisational fold.
Where do I start?
Hang on a minute. Before you get to action you have to do the planning. And before the planning, you need to figure what it is you are trying to do. You want the organisation to get volunteering, and the importance of good management and leadership of volunteers, right? What do you mean by “get volunteering”? What is it that people need to know about volunteering? What do you want to tell them and what is the best way to do it?
Now you can start thinking about your strategic plan – the key areas to work on, and the goals you have identified. You will be taking into account what is working and what doesn’t and what is missing. For instance, does volunteering get more than a mention in the organisation’s strategic plan and its business plan? How would you write up volunteering in these plans?
There is more: being strategic includes identifying potential allies, formulating the key points you want to communicate, and considering the channels open to you. You might, in the first instance, start reporting on volunteers and their activities, telling their stories and successes – and circulating the report to key players in the organisation, and especially the chief executive. Be bold, and go further by offering to meet and discuss the report. Even suggest what more could be achieved by volunteers.
Is this enough to go on with, to give you a kick-start?
If you want more info and other perspectives, go see how volunteer programmes can get Messed Up and what to do about it; or the observations of a group UK Managers of Volunteers. For details on how-to-plan, and what should be included, see this chapter of the Community Resource Kit or get the basics from Sport NZ.
One of the slogans I hear frequently is “managers of volunteers are advocates for volunteers in the organisation”, though I hear little about results of advocacy. The plaint of getting volunteering gets much more air time. Quite honestly this is the biggest foot-fault of our profession: wishing others would see our point of view is wishful thinking and accomplishes nothing. It is time to change our ways, to work on making looking-both-ways a key dynamic in the life of a manager of volunteers.
July 29, 2012
I have been rabbiting on for ages about the relevance of volunteering and the importance of good management of volunteers in the community and voluntary sector. I have been on about organisations that just don’t get volunteering, about boards and management that take volunteers for granted, and who fail to recognise that volunteers might be just the true deliverers of organisation vision and values.
Volunteers live the organisation’s mission; they have organisational values at heart; and they put up their hands to work for free without expectation of a pay package or other reward.
What if, I venture to ask, what if we turn running the organisation over to volunteers?
I can hear the objections shouted down the e-waves:
- The board members / trustees are all volunteers! Isn’t that enough?
- Volunteers are part-timers, mere bit-players in service delivery
- Volunteers are unreliable, take time out, have other commitments and priorities
- Volunteers do not have the necessary professional knowledge and skills
- Come on – volunteers are not the answer to everything!
- Lots of them are merely getting work experience, or fulfilling their employer’s obligations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
- Open Sesame to organisational chaos!
To which I respond:
- The role of Board members / Trustees is governance, overall direction and decision-making responsibility – well-placed to ensure best practice service delivery
- If you regard volunteers in your organisation as ‘bit-players’ then you do not deserve them
- Many community services are delivered entirely by volunteers – and highly valued for their standard of service
- Yes, volunteers are free to come and go: respect that freedom and you get loyalty and long-term commitment
- When volunteers know and understand why they join your organisation, they are demonstrating the real meaning of being ‘professional’, and all the knowledge and skills that go with that
- Volunteers are powerful contributors to community development, community integration, and the building of Civil Society
- And by being exposed to volunteer experience those people engaged for work experience or CSR events are likely to continue volunteering
- As for the chaos, welcome to tumultuous energy of the world of Management of Volunteers and the community and voluntary sector
What if, I ask again, what if the manager of volunteers was promoted to Chief Executive?
I can hear the gob-smacked responses from here! Sure there’s a load of extra responsibility and more things to think about. But think about it a bit more:
- The manager of volunteers is well-versed in management and leadership, especially in being responsible for more people than most Chief Executives in the community sector. [See Susan J Ellis, Non-Profit World 1986, 4/2 - Maximising the Potential of the Director of Volunteers; and 1996 – What Makes the Position of Volunteer Programme Manager (VPM) Unique? (Adapted from Chapter 4, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success)]
- The manager of volunteers is creative and flexible; has to be a strategic thinker and really good at time management; has an amazing network of colleagues and game-players to call on, and really good mentor support.
- The manager of volunteers knows the organisation inside out; works across all service areas; has effective working relationships with senior managers.
- The manager of volunteers is committed to organisation mission and vision and knows how to engage volunteers to put these into practice.
You might still think I am in fantasy-land. Not so, if you read Claire Teal’s arguments about the status of management of volunteers:
[S]o many of us seem to simultaneously lament the lack of value given to our role, but also resist any real attempt to do anything about this. In many ways we seem to want to have our cake (a higher value placed on our role) and eat it too (not change anything we’re doing).
This on-going self-deprecation has to be turned around! If you really object to a volunteer take-over, or to the manager of volunteers becoming your Chief Executive, go read Betty Stalling’s counterfactuals about Volunteer Program Champions.
That is the What If challenge for organisations and their managers of volunteers. That’s the world of difference a What If question can make.
June 4, 2012
It’s such a simple question. Quite straightforward. Should be easy-as to give me an answer.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers?
The thing is, I have put a veto on telling me It’s to save money dummy! Because I think if that’s the simple answer then why do we employ paid staff? Why not run the whole organisation on Volunteer Power? And if you say No way – impossible! then the ‘saving money’ argument sounds more like that ‘exploitation’ word.
Why does your organisation involve volunteers? This question is not an idle thought thrown up to make mischief. Let me offer a few leads to think about.
There are major agencies in New Zealand providing professional emergency services which include significant volunteer personnel. Think Fire Service, Ambulance, Civil Defence. Search and Rescue missions are likely to be staffed mostly by volunteers. The Government’s Department of Conservation includes an extensive volunteer programme. Yet there are no volunteers wearing a Police uniform.
There are national not-for-profit organisations with annual budgets and turnover and paid staff numbers that put them in the large business category. Think Red Cross, Cancer Society, IHC and the Churches, for example. All of these organisations engage large numbers of volunteers.
Why? Why involve volunteers?
Do volunteers offer something beyond the capacity of paid staff? Is there something special in the quality of volunteer work? Is there something unique about volunteers, apart from working for free?
I bet there is no-one out there is saying “The reason my organisation engages volunteers is to help them get work experience, learn new skills, enjoy social connections, or simply because they want ‘to help’”.
Praises are heaped on volunteers, during annual Volunteer Awareness Week, at special functions, in organisation newsletters and in Annual Reports, and in daily ‘thank you’ effusiveness. Is this recognition a means to engender organisation loyalty, and commitment to participate in the next fundraising appeal? Or does the praise indicate genuine understanding and acknowledgement of the real contributions volunteers are making to the organisation?
I am asking these questions because when you truly understand why volunteers are involved in your organisation then
- Volunteers are integrated in organisational structure and policy
- There are no (invisible or otherwise) barriers between volunteers and paid staff
- Volunteers have a specific function in service delivery: they are not handmaidens
- Volunteer contributions are acknowledged in genuine and meaningful ways
- The role of manager of volunteers finds its rightful place
- And (not least) there will be no more disgruntled volunteers dissing your organisation, and I will no longer find my blog on a bad volunteer experience getting so many hits.
There is a whole lot more that could be said, about history and the evolution of volunteering, about politics and the reality of service contracts, about professionalisation of fundraising (cake stalls don’t cut it any more), and about current trends in volunteering and the rise and rise of corporate volunteering and business social responsibility. Right now, the important thing is to get the reasoning straight, so the organisation can make more of itself, and so the volunteers make something real of the work they do.
April 15, 2012
The Latin tag cui bono can be applied in many contexts, but rarely do we stop to consider the implications of who benefits from volunteering and in what ways.
Too often we speak in clichés and platitudes, like:
- Volunteers are the salt of the earth
- They are the glue of society
- Thank you volunteers, we couldn’t manage without you
Yes we can measure volunteer contributions by translating hours and inputs into $$ figures which tell me little beyond how volunteers save the organisation a lot of money. What of the qualitative value of their work and its impact on outcomes? We really need to find the measuring tool that shows the true value of volunteer contributions to the organisation’s big-picture mission and strategic goals. There are ways and means, as I suggested some 18 months ago, and there are extensive references listed at Energizinc.
There are two other questions worth considering:
Why do you engage volunteers in your organisation?
Why do volunteers choose to volunteer for your organisation?
Finding some answers could lead us away from the financial cost-benefit analysis to getting some real understanding of volunteering and the kind of social profit it brings, to the organisation as well as to volunteers.
Ideally we should be looking for a win-win outcome on all counts. Any act of volunteering is a giving process, but it is never selfless. There is always a quid pro quo, an exchange of something in return for a volunteer’s time, skills and knowledge. So the real question should be What is the pay-off for the volunteer?
There are practical gains, like work experience, learning new skills, developing new interests. Volunteering can improve job prospects and open new career options.
The intrinsic benefits may not be articulated well by volunteers. They can come up with clichés and platitudes too:
- Making a difference in the community
- A sense of purpose
Get volunteers to talk about satisfactions and what they gain and they will offer responses like the following:
Volunteering can enlarge social networks and social interaction; volunteering offers a sense of belonging in a community. Supporting a cause is to participate in creating change, to realise personal values. The ethic of service can be a satisfaction in itself. All of these ‘goods’ promote personal growth, enhanced confidence and competence in the work undertaken and a satisfying sense of achievement. In other words, volunteering is empowering.
Research findings from the Rugby World Cup, and a survey of volunteers involved in the Bay of Plenty clean-up after the Rena grounding indicate similar satisfactions. There are more references at Energize.
So really, the gains, benefits and satisfactions are a two-way street between volunteers and their organisations. That is a fundamental connection which should not be overlooked.
March 18, 2012
I’ve never been a fan of voluntourism. Yes, I know it is a growth industry but I worry about who benefits. The definition from a comprehensive website suggests this kind of travel is all for the tourist:
The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination.
I have also heard the stories of people lured to foreign parts on a ‘do-good’ mission, only to find their time and energies exploited in tasks that do not match their skills and interests. Worse, in my view, is the easy come-and-go of the voluntraveller with limited contribution to the development needs of local communities or organisations. It convolutes the purpose of volunteering, and when a payment is required for the experience I have to ask if this is still ‘volunteering’. Of course many voluntour agencies take a responsible approach, offering ‘reality-check’ information and a placement process. Research studies find positive outcomes for the volunteers in terms of self and career development, but there is little recorded evidence of the impact of volunteering in communities where participants are placed. And that’s what should matter, specially when governments in developed nations promote or support international volunteering as part of their aid programmes.
As for micro-volunteering – I have yet to get my head around how it works and to add it to my lexicon of volunteering. Yes, I know it’s convenient for the volunteer and allows for innovative ways to support non-profit organisations. Yet, again, I wonder about the cost-benefit outcomes. Can the value of a short-term, bite-sized volunteer task really be worth the management input to make micro-volunteering happen? Volunteers do not come for free!
Well – I happened to do a spot of micro-volunteering, as a voluntourist, during recent travel in Laos.
I knew about Big Brother Mouse before I left New Zealand, and paying the office a visit was on my list of things to do. Big Brother Mouse (BBM) is a not-for-profit, Lao-owned project, with Lao staff. Its focus is literacy, publishing books and distributing them around the country, particularly to highland villages. There were BBM books to be found at night markets and other places round the country, and on one remote mountain road a van sporting the BBM logo went past.
In Luang Prabang I expressed interest in helping young adults with English conversation practice. That was going to be my micro-voluntourist effort: two hours chatting with a stranger from another culture. I was assigned to a young woman who wanted English skills so she could better communicate with tourist visitors at her workplace. We got on just fine, covered a lot of ground beyond the basic personal and family information, and two hours went by in a flash.
One small bit of experience does not answer my questions, but at least I have learned how it works, for one organisation in a developing country. What made it work in voluntourism terms is the explicit information on the website, all geared for visitors to Laos who could be prospective donors and/or volunteers. On site, staff were clear and firm about expectations. And I am sorry this meeting was a one-off, because it would be good to follow the young woman’s development. Extending volunteer commitment is one of the spin-offs of micro-volunteering, but it will not happen this time. I wonder too if there are any records of progress in language development – is the experience useful for the participant? As the volunteer I introduced myself to office staff and presented some relevant credentials but no details were recorded, nor references required. (This type of volunteering would surely be subject to some risk management back home.)
So – I have had a taste of two unfamiliar brands of volunteering. The task process (relationship- building) was familiar, and it was the context that was different. I will not be chasing further experience in either voluntourism or micro-volunteering, but I will be keeping an open mind and an eye on opportunities closer to home.